Hidden in the Southern Black Hills is a small town of 3,500 that has a secret over 26,000 years old. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is located on top of an ancient sinkhole that was the final resting place for many mammoths, as well as a camel, coyote, short-faced bear, and other creatures native to the Black Hills region.
The Mammoth Site is not your average museum. It’s an active dig facility that allows you to witness the excavation process from beginning to end. Upon entering, you’ll be greeted by a Columbian mammoth skeleton and a woolly mammoth skeleton for side-by-side comparison.
Before entering their dig site, you have the opportunity to watch a 10-minute introductory video on the history of the Mammoth Site and how it came to be. This video takes place in one of two brand new theaters. Afterwards, a tour guide will take you through the dig site and point out specific areas of interest and answer any questions you might have. This can be followed by a self-guided tour with further details about the site. Soon to come will be interactive displays that can sync with your phone and provide even more information.
The dig site is temperature controlled and sits around 75 degrees in the summer and 45 in the winter, so bring along a layer depending on when you visit. The humidity is kept at 55% year round. This precise control is due to the fragile nature of the bones. Unlike dinosaur fossils that have turned to stone, the mammoth bones and tusks are just as fragile as the shale that surrounds them. Without the rigorous environmental control, the site would slowly deteriorate and be ruined for future generations.
Luckily, should that ever happen, there would hopefully be more mammoths beneath the surface. Tests have estimated that the sinkhole and fossil bed is approximately 100 feet deep, 60 of that still being underground and undisturbed. Despite having only investigated less than half of the site, they have already found 61 mammoths, as well as various other animals, including a short-faced bear that is now extinct. All the mammoths so far discovered have been male, and all but one have been juvenile males. To date, the Mammoth Site has the highest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world.
The theory behind this extends from the traits of modern elephants. It is believed that mammoths modeled a matriarchal society; one in which young juvenile males that got out of line would be kicked out of the herd. In the time period of these mammoths, an excluded juvenile could then either dig through deep snow to try to find food or go for some of the attractive greenery growing around this warm sinkhole—inevitably falling in and unable to get out. Despite being excellent swimmers, the shale and clay that formed the walls of the sinkhole is extremely slippery when wet and would have made it nearly impossible for a mammoth to escape.
After spending some time in the main dig room, you can journey to the next part of the Mammoth Site which is the Exhibits Hall. Containing a life-size model of a Columbian Mammoth, as well as a skeleton of the short-faced bear and many other interesting things, the Exhibits Hall is full of information for both the devoted historian and amateur alike. Priding itself on being an education and research institute, the Mammoth Site has information readily available for all levels.
Now through the end of August, you can also take in a 3D film presented by Giant Screen Films and partly filmed at the Mammoth Site. Titans of the Ice Age is a 30-minute 3D film that transports you across the monumental glaciers and massive grasslands 40,000 years ago.
Afterwards, don’t forget to head down the elevator to observe the lab where you can see how they prepare, clean and organize their fossils and microfossils. Even though the larger bones are generally more exciting and provide a better visual, the microfossils give a much better indication of what life and the environment was like during their time of existence. Microfossils include things like rodents, lizards, shells, and other objects less than 1 lb. in weight.
One area I was lucky enough to visit that isn’t included in the standard tour is their Bone Vault. This is where they store all of the fossils after they have been taken out of the dig site and cleaned by the preparation staff. In this room lies their largest tusk to date, a massive 11-foot tusk partially cased in a purple cast. There is also a large Columbian mammoth skull that has currently racked up around 2,000 hours of cleanup time and still requires a bit more. Did I mention how time intensive this job is?
What’s even better than seeing all of this awesome stuff, you ask? Doing it yourself, of course! At the Mammoth Site you’re in luck because during the summer they offer both a Jr. Paleontology and Advanced Paleontology course geared for kids, but don’t be afraid to jump in as an adult; you won’t be the first. The Jr. program focuses mainly on digging and the methods and techniques, while the advanced program teaches the students how to cast and map out their dig site. And while they prefer advanced registration, you are always more than welcome to ask if there is room in the next class, but be warned as they fill up fast.
If you find yourself in Hot Springs any time of the year, be sure to stop at the Mammoth Site and check out one of the Black Hills’ most unique education and research facilities, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world!